We've heard much about the resurgence of PR in a marketing environment that is undergoing immense and undeniable change. For example, it seems that each time one of the big holding companies reports quarterly earnings, the refrain is pretty much the same: The parent may or may not be doing so well, but growth in revenues from PR firms is cited as a bright light.
But this so-called PR renaissance may be a mirage, built less on bringing greater value to the marketing mix than on being the default mechanism for big companies straining to enhance returns on their traditional marketing investments. If that's true, the PR business may be destined for the same sorry fate as traditional advertising.
That's because PR doesn't lend itself to delivering the powerful creative concepts needed to thrive in a world where consumers increasingly choose when, where, and how they consume content; they participate actively in the creation and dissemination of information; and they can immunize themselves from being "marketed to."
The response to this new dynamic has been to herald new practice areas focused on Web-based communications. That's a start, but it leaves PR people in a bit of a pinch when marketers come to realize that typical PR relies too heavily on an outmoded paradigm in which the media is essentially a one-way street. A business model founded on press releases, news conferences, pitches, and clip reports is doomed to reveal itself as prone to the same weak ROI metrics that imperil traditional advertising.
That's the bad news. The really bad news is that when advertising circles back after years of flatness to embrace the new order, PR will once again be left as a bridesmaid.
It's already happening: Today's best PR ideas are emanating from a cadre of renegade independents innovative and lithe enough to shift on a dime. They may not call themselves PR firms, but they are creating big ideas that build buzz and awareness. They can do it because they are steeped in creative processes designed to move and engage people. Creativity is the differentiator in a self-selective, fragmented consumer marketplace.
This heightened demand for creativity brings with it a need to embrace an integrated "borderless" approach to marketing communications. Be it subservient chickens or yellow wrist bands, we're seeing it matters less how the message gets there as long as it gets there. So, there isn't much to prevent PR from being relegated to the role of a mere distribution channel.
Anyone who lives with today's youth knows the future is now. My 17-year-old son can riff on the hot issues and new products of the day with anyone. But I've never seen him touch The New York Times. So, how valuable will that hard-earned Times placement really be in 10 years? He gets and shares information where and when he wants. Its nucleus is the Internet, but it travels via interactive and mobile devices that connect him to social networking, online video, user-generated communities, and the intense word of mouth that echoes off the digital domain.
Marketers are demanding bigger, more intrusive ideas and nontraditional approaches to piercing the consciousness of consumers in today's fast-changing media landscape. Those who seize the day will win. Will it be the industry we know today as PR?
Joe Kessler is a partner of SS&K, an independent strategic marketing communications firm in LA.